Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mary Gaitskill: "Secretary" and "A Romantic Weekend"

Mary Gaitskill's two stories in Double Takes are both painfully sexual accounts of characters pushing their own limits.  They aren't 50 Shades of Grey -- these stories recount believable relationships with clear established rules in male/female dominance.

In your blog posts, think about what Gaitskill does to make these scenarios believable and not over-the-top.  Or maybe you feel that these are over-the-top, and then write about why.  Which characters do your sympathies lie?  If any?

Also, look at the point of view of these stories.  Especially in "A Romantic Weekend," the point of view tends to switch back and forth between He and She.  What kind of effect does this have on you as a reader?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lia Purpura: "Autopsy" and "On Aesthetics" and "On Form"

Lia Purpura Visits SU October 2012
In a review of Purpura's On Looking that appears in a smart online literary magazine called Diagram, Nicole Walker writes: "Line of sight, in your sight, at the end of a scope—Lia Purpura's essays fold layers of vision into solid beams of precision. In her essay 'On Aesthetics,' Purpura provides a metaphoric key instructing readers how to read this book. She describes a baby who sits on his mother's lap while the neighbor boys across the street draw a bead on his head—the red eye of the rifle scope marks the baby's forehead: 'The laser on the baby's head was a cherry lozenge, a button, a tack. The color of holly berries, chokeable, dangerous, we keep from our son.' Associations here are fluid, circumscribed, and dangerous. The language is poetry's process of accumulation, but it is in the folding that makes these pieces essays. The book enacts its aesthetic by circumscribing, cutting, outlining its vision rather than explicating, connecting or declaring. When Purpura successfully aligns our sight with hers, the combined power of that vision evokes much more than image."

Later in the review, Walker comments that "Purpura's language is her scissor and her sword."  She also notes that Purpura is "careful to point the sharp edges away from herself" and that the writer remains "a safe distance" from that which she observes.  However, Walker concludes: Purpura "does her looking with an amazing capacity to see the unseen, to bring word to the unspoken."  Her final suggestion is that "For these essays, the most ethical response is an aesthetical one. Redemption comes from looking. Just look, she pleads."

As I read and reread these essays (sick at home in bed as I am), I first felt wary of the peeking self, the "I" that emerges and then hides.  I wondered about her, wanting her to reveal herself in the manner of most nonfiction, even as I remain at a safe, blanketed distance.  Then I realized that this nonfiction is different from much of what I've read.  Purpura's lyrical "I" could very well be a character in literary fiction, defined mostly by the way she looks at the world.  It's a fascinating thought, that what we might really need for expert characterization is clarity about the way the character perceives his/her world.  That character might let us know something about the way we perceive, or how might develop our perception.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Amy Hempel: "In the Cemetery..." and "Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep"

Both of these stories are "about" a female narrator with her female friend.  In the first story, the friend is dying, and in the second, the friend gives birth to a baby.  These stories narrate events that happen all the time in the world around us, but Hempel's lush, surprising language and her selection of scenes and her shifts of timing transform them into specific occasions of not-knowing, or of looking at the mysterious underbelly that horrifies and attracts us both at once.  Reading Amy Hempel feels like being three years old and learning that I can pick my own scab.  

Photograph from Matt Bell's Blog

You’ve said that one of your commitments in writing is strict attention to the individual sentence.

Yes. Writing conducted at the sentence level has always made perfect sense to me. Allan Gurganus put it very well. He was sitting on a panel on the novel with Stanley Elkin and several others, and there was all this talk about theories of novels and he said, There are those of us who are still loyal at the level of the sentence. That’s the great attraction and motivation. That’s what gets me in, writing or reading. Though it’s unlikely you’ll write something nobody has ever heard of, the way you have a chance to compete is in the way you say it. Now I’ve been writing for almost twenty years, and I still feel the same way. That is how I assemble stories—me and a hundred million other people—at the sentence level. Not by coming up with a sweeping story line.

You’ve said you can’t bear to have a bad sentence in front of you.

Yes. I still can’t. Makes me ill.